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What a public inquiry into Covid must cover

Posted on Mar 20, 2021

K eep Our NHS Public decided to go ahead with a people’s inquiry into the handling of the pandemic (Pressure mounts on Boris Johnson to launch coronavirus inquiry, 16 March), as we have no confidence in the government’s assurance that it will hold one when the time is right. Two virtual sessions have taken place and the panel, chaired by Michael Mansfield QC, has heard from Sir Michael Marmot and Sir David King, as well as speakers from the Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group. Recordings of these sessions can be found on our website.

King, a previous chief scientific adviser to the government and now chair of Independent Sage, said that in 2006 it had considered the effect of a pandemic with the virus coming from an animal source. This information seemed to have been lost in the system, as the 2016 Cygnus exercise only modelled itself on the flu. Marmot presented figures showing the devastating impact of austerity on health inequalities, and the bereaved family members asked pertinent questions about the system setup, while Helen Salisbury, a practising GP, related how GPs were ignored in the steps taken to control the pandemic. We hope that the Department of Health and Social Care is summarising this information for Matt Hancock and will implement some of the needed changes.
Wendy Savage
President, Keep Our NHS Public

Any public Covid inquiry should take account of the Department of Health’s UK influenza pandemic preparedness strategy from 2011. This describes proposals for “an updated UK-wide strategic approach to planning for and responding to the demands of an influenza pandemic”. And although the strategy is directed at a flu pandemic, its analysis covers a range of issues that are arguably also relevant to the current pandemic. These include the unpredictability of the severity of a pandemic and the speed at which it develops.

It also states that “the government already has in place stockpiles of face masks and respirators for health and social care workers”. It will be interesting to learn to what role the strategy has played in the response to Covid-19.
Neil Hornsby

Asked when there will be an inquiry, Boris Johnson tells parliament that “there will be time for a full inquiry”, Kwasi Kwarteng claims such an inquiry would be “premature”, and Downing Street says that “now is not the right time …” (Bereaved families issue legal ultimatum to Boris Johnson over Covid inquiry, 17 March).

They have managed to disinter the Doctrine of Unripe Time. As long ago as 1987, John Maddox suggested in a note on nuclear disarmament in the journal Nature that this was a version of St Augustine’s prayer: “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” Under this inglorious doctrine, this or that agreement by the nuclear powers was all very well and was the peak of their ambition, “but not yet” – because the time was not ripe for it. Plus ça change.
Dr Richard Carter
Putney, London

No inquiry that focuses on 2020 and 2021 will identify the true causes of this tragedy. As Alan Johnson, the health secretary in 2007, has said, it was common knowledge at that time that a pandemic was coming. Dire warnings from simulation exercises – Winter Willow in 2007 and Cygnus in 2016 – seem to have been ignored. Boris Johnson is too easy a target. It is the leadership of the country and health service between 2010 and 2019 that requires the fullest examination. Anything else will be a dumb show.
Alan Marsden
Beetham, Cumbria